Understanding the Difference Between Behavior and Emotions in Children - Blog

Understanding the Difference Between Behavior and Emotions in Children

Published Date: 12/04/19

The terrible twos. Every parent has heard of them. Every parent dreads them. Despite our deep and never-ending love, there are certain phases we simply don’t look forward to. The incessant yelling. The tantrums. The unreasonable fits of anger over what we consider the silliest of things.  

It’s certainly clear why you may want to skip these years and avoid carrying your child surfboard-style out of Target, abandoning your cart mid-shopping trip.

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But, understanding what your child is going through and why they act like they need an exorcism performed can help you through the terrible twos, threenage year, and f&*#ing fours, though we can’t absolutely promise you’ll come out unscathed.  

Fundamentally, it comes down to knowing the difference between emotions and behavior, and how to deal with each. Parents often confuse these two, which leads to unsuccessful tactics and more tantrums, and then the belief that a child is unmanageable.

Kid’s Emotions

Separating emotions from behavior can be difficult. An emotion is a strong feeling derived from immediate circumstance, relationships, or mood (mood is important – we often forget children are tiny humans who are sometimes just in a bad mood, just like all of us at times).

As an adult, you feel a wide range of emotions, but have a wealth of experience to draw from. Your developed brain, as well as past outcomes to social norms dictate how you behave when feeling certain ways.

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Let’s say you are starting a new job. On your first day, or even for several weeks, you might feel excited, anxious, fearful, and stressed. Instead of sitting in the corner crying which some people may want to do when they’re scared, you’re able to manage your emotions because you know what to expect to some degree. You know you’re safe.

A child does not have the same background to draw from in many situations. They don’t have the benefit of knowing societal mores, they don’t have the brain development to soothe themselves, they don’t have the language to verbalize how they’re feeling, and they don’t always know that they’re safe.

While you can tell yourself that everything will be okay, a child cannot and only has a few tools to express themselves, and that’s typically crying and screaming. When they’re crying and screaming they’re telling you something. Maybe they’re scared or maybe they’re frustrated because you said no (well known to be the cause of many meltdowns both at home and in public), but they simply don’t have the tools at this stage to react in a way you’d much prefer.

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Defining behavior

Behavior is best described as a response by an individual or group to a stimulation. In other words, how someone conducts oneself. Behavior is acquired or learned. When you are stressed you may bite your nails or fidget. If you’re sad you may curl up in front of the TV with favorite your blanket and ice cream as you process things. The feelings of stress are the emotions are going through while curling up with a blanket and ice cream is the behavior that follows the emotion.

So, you’re in the grocery store with your little one and you refuse to buy them candy, and here it comes – full on tantrum, laying on the ground, arms flailing, wails so loud you’re sure someone will call the police. Often, parents see this as an act of defiance, but it’s not. Your little one really wanted that candy, and when you said no, they must have felt angry and frustrated. The tantrum, like you curling up with a blanket and ice cream, is behavior.

However, unlike you, your child is still learning how to deal with frustration and anger. They also can’t separate the two. When you punish for the tantrum, your child views it as being punished for the emotions.

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That’s not to say that you should let a tantrum go unchecked (however ignoring, even in public can be a very effective strategy even if you find it embarrassing), but punitive measures, like sending a child to their room, are not effective and can do harm in the long run.

Helping kids with their emotions and behavior

We all want well-mannered kids, but to get there, we must be willing to mold them. It takes patience to teach a skill, but by understanding our kid’s developmental stage, we will enjoy the ride.

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Babies and emotional development

Newborns smile and coo melting our hearts, but sometimes they scream at the top of their lungs. These early cries sound so sweet and innocent. Smiling and crying is your child’s first language. Crying is a means of getting your attention or informing you that something is not right while smiling shows they are feeling happy, content, and safe.

If your newborn is crying, they may need a diaper change, they could be hungry, they could be too hot or too cold, or they simply want to be held in your safe, warm hands. They are in the mood of need, so the way they can articulate what they feel at that precise moment is through crying.

For years, parents have been advised to let their little one’s cry it out to toughen them up or to get them to sleep through the night. But research shows this is the wrong way to approach ‘toughening’ kids. A child who is left to cry it out will eventually stop asking for your attention, not because they have grown tougher, but because they know their needs will not be attended to. They may grow into an insecure toddler who is prone to anger outbursts.

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On the other hand, when you meet your little one’s needs, they’re likely to grow into a confident toddler who knows that his or her parents will be there to help them process their feelings and calm them down, ultimately keeping them safe.

Toddler emotional development

By the time your child is hitting the end of their first year of life, a lot will have changed. You’re quite familiar with the term “the terrible twos” – a year of tantrums over seemingly little things. But your child is still learning to communicate and doesn’t have the language to verbalize all of his or her needs. Children this age also lack the emotional maturity to engage their brains and reason things out.

Your child is trying to figure out the best possible way of showing their independence. They want to feel that they are in control of their lives and that they can make decisions by themselves. What they typically lack at this point is the communication skills of verbally stating what they want. Their brains are also not developed enough to regulate their emotions. So, in that small world of theirs, banging, hitting, biting, screaming, and even throwing themselves on the floor, is the way they can communicate that they are dissatisfied.

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Emotions in these instances include frustration and anger, while tantrums, throwing toys, and screaming is the behavior that follows these emotions. Before you brand your child spoiled or naughty, ask yourself, “what is my little one feeling that’s making them behave this way”.

At this stage, you ought to be understanding. Yelling at your kid will not help. Instead, it will reinforce aggression, and your child might pick on this as the right and acceptable means of communication. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained behavior and not a means to release stress. Think about it -  isn’t this the behavior you show when you are aggravated? Kids learn by modeling what we do. If you yell (behavior) when you are angry (emotion), your child learns to do the same.

To make matters worse, your child also learns that you are unavailable to help them with their emotions, because when they are frustrated, and they throw a tantrum, you give them time out, threaten them, and ask them to sit by themselves and think about what they’ve done.

It’s impossible to change in a day, but we can take a step at a time until we can control ourselves. When you yell at your child, for instance, wait until you are calm and apologize for the behavior. You can say something like, “I’m sorry I yelled. It's wrong, and I shouldn’t have done it.”

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Often children have little control over their lives and when they expert control, it’s inconvenient, like when you’re in a rush and they refuse to get into the car seat. Avoid conflict by letting them make decisions, like picking out their own clothing or deciding what books they want you to read tonight.

Also, you need to remember that your biggest job when teaching your child socially acceptable behavior is to remain calm and model the behavior you want them to learn. If you want them to be patient, kind, and to stay calm when things are not working, be patient, kind, and remain calm when you want to yell.

Emotional development in preschoolers

By preschool, your child has begun labelling their emotions and can, in most cases, communicate what they are feeling. They rely on the family setting to facilitate their understanding of emotions. At first, they will distinguish happiness from negative feelings before they can differentiate between the different negative emotions such as anger and fear.

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But just because they can name their emotions does not mean they can control them. Although the tantrums will have subsided a little, your little one will still cry and throw a fit from time to time. A significant change in routine, for instance, can cause a tantrum. However, when you ask them what’s happening, they will tell you outrightly how they are feeling or what caused the discomfort. Know the triggers for your child – often losing control comes with being overly tired or hungry.

Your child is also learning to be empathetic. They will sooth another child when they spot them crying by hugging them and telling them that everything is going to be ok. This behavior indicates that your child is comfortable with their emotions. They have dealt with this before, and know how to deal with these emotions because you showed them how.

Distinguish emotions and behavior

Small as toddlers may be, they have a great mind that can learn, unlearn, and understand you. Learn why they show particular behavior at certain times. When your child is hungry, how do they act? They might wiggle themselves and cry. Learning your child’s immediate emotions and behavior within a given stimulus helps in forming proper communication.

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Use affection and positive affirming words to help them name their emotions and behavior from a young age. If they rub their eyes because they are sleepy, gently rock them and tell them they are crying because they are sleepy. If they throw their truck on the floor because you won’t play with them, ask them if your saying no made them angry and frustrated.

Then, instead of punishing them for it, sit with them until they are calm and can control their emotions, and thus, behavior. Remember, your child cannot control their feelings, but how they behave when they can’t, is their way of communicating how they are feeling.

By ages four and five, children will have found their voice. At this age, children are more self-aware and confident. Not only is their vocabulary growing, but their thought process too. This milestone ensures that they can freely express themselves. Remember those emotions at an early age whereby they could not verbally express themselves? Or the tantrums they threw back then due to lack of adequate communication skills? Well, you can now take a breather.

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Emotions and behavior go hand in hand. If you are stressed, you may snap at someone, cry, eat, be grumpy, or have a beer. It includes anything that feels befitting to that exact emotion you are going through. When you are happy, you sing, dance, or jump up and down. When you are anxious, you might bite your nails, and when you are sad, you cry. It’s the same with your child. They are slowly learning to assert themselves, to reach out and communicate in the most humanly possible way. Don’t punish them for it. Instead, guide them to learn how to understand and control their emotions.

Final thoughts

Understanding the difference between your child’s emotions and their behavior can go a long way. Help your child identify their emotions, model the behavior you want to see them practice, and understand what triggers situations cause them to get upset or have tantrums. Once you can do that, you might find that the terrible twos aren’t so terrible after all.  

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